June 21, 2003

Radio Dept. "Lesser Matters"

With Lesser Matters, The Radio Dept. has staked out their own territory of lo-fi, shoegazer, and pop and then run around in it like melancholy little children on a playground. The continuity of the album is there: every song is dreamy, experimental and catchy at the same time, yet each track is unique. This is a record to put on repeat when youíre snowed in, or for watching the rain from a dusty window with a cup of coffee.

Part of what makes this disc such a collage of different textures is the instrumentation. Starting out with "Too Soon," a minute-long wash of synths and breathy vocals with no drums, the record dives immediately into a live drummer and fuzzy, upbeat guitar on "Where Damage Isnít Already Done." The following three songs mash together noisily distorted guitar with Casio-style drum machine beats and organ sounds. All the fuzz clears up for "1995," a song with a sneaky way of getting stuck in your head, before moving on to piano-heavy tracks "Strange Things Will Happen" and "Your Father," two songs that seem more informed by Belle and Sebastion than Slowdive. Then the final two tracks crash back in with the harshest guitar sounds on the record, a moodiness that is only offset by Johan Duncansonís relaxed voice.

The lo-fi production, with its fuzzy vocals, tends to obscure the lyrics and thatís unfortunate. For a lot of bands that may not be so important, but when I got a lyric sheet from Shelflife (The Radio Dept.ís stateside label) I realized that words are one of Duncansonís strongest points. With lines like "You are raining inÖ / youíre dripping into the buckets I have placed / where damage isnít already done," ("Where Damage Isnít Already Done") Duncanson spells out some smart metaphors that usually donít find their way into the song lyrics of a rock band. Itís a shame you canít understand them on listening alone. "Strange Things Will Happen" is the lone exception, maybe because itís sung by Elin Almered, whose painting ended up on the cover. Her voice is the kind thatís easy to have a crush on, mellow and understated, and it sounds perfectly in place between the songs sung by Duncanson.

Lesser Matters is all the daydream and soundscape youíd hope for from any shoegazer band, but in an unassuming package. Even the video for "Where Damage Isnít Already Done" (you can watch it at www.labrador.se) just looks like a hand-carried camera followed the band members around, from a recording session in a living room to a nearby bar for a pint. This is a band that realizes that sound is more important than image, that hypnotic music doesnít have to be monotonous, and that a three-minute pop song can be as ethereal and moving as a ten-minute linear space rock jam. This is a disc worth owning from some Swedes who just broke into the American market. I imagine there will be more to come from them in the next several years.

--Jeremy Yocum

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